Courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Chapter One: A Corpse in the Sand
I don't feel safe because once I step out on the street, I don't know if the second step I take will be my last.
— Guillermina González, victim's sister
Ramona Morales hurried from her small concrete house in Juárez, Mexico, just after 8:30 P.M. on July 11, 1995. She was determined to be at the bus stop when her daughter, Silvia, arrived after a long day of school and work.
In the last thirty-six months, there had been a series of brutal sexual attacks against young women in and around the Mexican border city, all of them fatal. Ramona wanted to make sure her teenage daughter didn't become the next victim.
She had noticed short stories about the killings in the newspaper. Many of the victims had disappeared on their way to or from work, often in broad daylight; their lifeless remains were found weeks, sometimes months later, in the vast scrublands that rim the industrialized border city. What the newspapers hadn't reported would have frightened her even more. The victims bodies exhibited signs of rape, mutilation, and torture. Some had been bound with their own shoelaces. Others were savagely disfigured. One young girl endured such cruelty that an autopsy revealed she had suffered multiple strokes before her assailant finally choked the life from her.
The victims were young, pretty, and petite, with flowing dark hair and full lips. All had been snatched from the downtown area, while waiting for a bus or shopping in stores. An alarming number were abducted en route to their jobs at the assembly plants, known locally as maquiladoras, that made parts and appliances for export.
The once unremarkable border town was fast becoming the fourth-largest city in Mexico with the opening of hundreds of these export factories. Locked behind towering gates and manned security booths, these contemporary assembly plants, many with neatly tended greenery and lush lawns, seemed a stark contrast to the prickly cacti and blowing tumbleweed indigenous to the arid region. Eighty percent of the factories were American-owned and produced goods for major U.S. corporations including Lear, Amway, TDK, Honeywell, General Electric, 3M, DuPont, and Kenwood. They had been built in response to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by the United States and Mexico in 1993.
The plants, which looked just like the ones constructed by those same companies north of the border, were drawing tens of thousands of laborers from across Mexico each year with the promise of work. The constant influx of people was rapidly creating a booming metropolis. Indeed, the city of Juárez was growing so fast that it was nearly impossible to map.
The city's roadways were a hodgepodge of paved and unpaved streets, some marked, others anonymous sandy paths that led to the shantytowns and squatters' villages continually springing up on the outskirts of town. When viewed from north of the border, Juárez appeared a vibrant and major metropolis, but on closer inspection the city seemed to be El Paso's poor, depressed relative, more reminiscent of a third world country.
The one- and two-story buildings crowding the narrow streets just off the Santa Fe Street Bridge from El Paso were dilapidated, their pastel colors dulled by a layer of brown dust from the sandstorms and car fumes. There were no emissions laws in Mexico, and pollution continued to be a problem.
In addition to car exhaust, road debris was a major concern in the city. Ramshackle tire shops — little more than wooden huts — dotted almost every corner, offering motorists a quick fix for the innumerable blowouts caused by such debris. American-built cars and trucks from the seventies and eighties dominated the landscape, many of them looking like they'd been resurrected from junkyards.
After dark, loud music blared from the nightclubs and cantinas that lined the streets of the red-light district, frequented by local street gangs, drug traffickers, and those who wanted to dance and party. Bars stayed open all night on Mariscal and Ugarte Streets, magnets for those eager to cross the border and indulge under the veil of anonymity.
Driven by a desire to maximize profits, the city's factories also operated on a twenty-four-hour schedule. Even some of the schools held two sessions each day to accommodate the ever-growing student population.
Getting a job on one of the hundreds of assembly lines meant a chance at a better life for the impoverished and often untrained laborers flooding into the Juárez area from throughout the region. Construction and forestry jobs had all but dried up in other parts of the country. Juárez was one of the few places in Mexico that was experiencing a growth in the job market.
The truth, in fact, was that there were plenty of employment opportunities in the factories of Juárez — so many that entire families could expect to find work there in a fairly short period of time. Girls in their early to mid teens were especially sought after because they didn't expect much money for their labor and could rapidly perform detailed assembly work. Many were under the legal age of sixteen and had lied about their ages on their job applications to secure a paycheck, most with the dream of earning enough to buy a pretty dress or a fashionable pair of shoes.
Silvia Elena Rivera Morales was just seven years old when her family relocated to Juárez in the mid-1980s from La Laguna, a region in Coahuila, the third-largest state in Mexico. The construction industry was on the decline, and Silvia's father could no longer find steady work. The family's eldest son, Domingo, was employed as a teacher in one of the local elementary schools. But his salary was not enough to provide for the family of seven, so the Moraleses decided to try their luck in Juárez.
As in other Latin American cities, there are extremes of wealth and poverty in Ciudad Juárez. While the Mexican city is literally within walking distance of El Paso, Texas, the two cities couldn't be more different.
Ciudad Juárez is located in the northern state of Chihuahua, one of thirty-one states that make up Mexico. By 1990, its population of 1.5 million was nearly triple that of the state capital of Chihuahua City.
Crossing into Mexico costs little more than twenty-five cents for pedestrians. Vehicles pay a nominal fee in each direction, except at the Bridge of the Americas, which is free. U.S. and Canadian citizens need only show a valid identification, such as a driver's license, to enter Juárez. In contrast, citizens of Mexico and other countries need a passport and a multiple entry visa to come to the United States.
Prior to the Mexican-American War of 1846, El Paso and Juárez constituted one large metropolis, its people divided only by the Rio Grande. But when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, the two nations agreed to split the city, with the area south of the river falling to Mexico. Four bridges with pedestrian and motor vehicle access connect the twin cities, as they are often called. The United States and Mexico now share the waters of the Rio Grande through a series of agreements overseen by the joint U.S.-Mexico Boundary and Water Commission.
But the river has all but dried up in many parts, due to drought and overuse. For much of the year, it is little more than a sandy ditch filled with household refuse and other trash. From its riverbanks, Mexican locals watch the steady stream of vehicular and pedestrian traffic crossing into their city. Many have set up camp in small cardboard boxes there. They use the area as a way station until they can execute their escape from the poverty of their native land for what they hope will be a better life in the United States of America.
Ironically, most of the job opportunities in the El Paso/Juárez area are on the southern side of the border, in Mexico. The U.S.-owned factories provide the majority of income for residents of El Paso, who cross daily to work as managers and other middle-level employees at the maquiladoras.
The lower-paying assembly-line jobs are what the young Mexican girls and their families travel hundreds of miles to fill. These jobs pay little more than three to five dollars a day, enough to put food on the table but not always enough to put a roof over the worker's head.
An increase in the number of factories in Juárez and along the northern border came in 1982 with the devaluation of the Mexican currency, the peso. By 1986, 94 percent of maquiladora employment was in the border states of northern Mexico. The shift in jobs to the industrial sector came after the cancellation of the Bracero Program, a U.S. government program started in the early 1940s to bring a few hundred experienced Mexican agricultural laborers to harvest sugar beets in the Stockton, California, area. The program soon expanded to cover most of the United States to provide much-needed farm workers for the booming U.S. agricultural sector. But the program was halted in 1964 in response to harsh criticisms of human rights abuses of the Mexican laborers. The following year, the Mexican government implemented the Border Industrialization Program (BIP), better known as the Maquiladora Program, to relieve the resulting high unemployment rates in northern Mexico. The new program used low-wage Mexican labor to entice U.S. manufacturing to the region, allowing companies to move production machinery and unassembled parts into Mexico without tariff consequences, as long as the assembled product was returned to the United States for final sale. In exchange, Mexican laborers would receive salaries that they wouldn't otherwise be able to obtain.
By 1991, there were almost seven hundred maquiladoras located in the Mexican border cities, with more than three hundred in Ciudad Juárez, as compared to ninety-four in Matamoros and eighty-two in Reynosa, just across the border from Brownsville and McAllen, Texas.
Juárez underwent a second transformation in the mid-1990s under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), between Mexico, the United States, and Canada, that established the world's largest free trade zone.
On December 17, 1992, in three separate ceremonies in the three capitals, President George H. W. Bush, Mexican president Carlos Salinas, and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney signed the historic pact, which eliminated restrictions on the flow of goods, services, and investment in North America. The U.S. House of Representatives approved NAFTA by a vote of 234 to 200 on November 17, 1993, and the U.S. Senate voted 60 to 38 for approval on November 20. The agreement was signed into law by President William Jefferson Clinton on December 8 and took effect on January 1, 1994.
Under NAFTA, the tax breaks enjoyed by the maquiladora industry would no longer be confined to the border area but would be available throughout Mexico. The U.S. and Mexican governments anticipated that the provision would entice manufacturers to leave the overstressed border area and expand into Mexico's interior.
Instead of relocating deeper into the country, however, the maquiladoras of the northern region increased employment dramatically.
While Tijuana had the largest number of assembly plants, Ciudad Juárez had the largest maquiladora workforce, totaling in excess of two hundred thousand by 1994. The numbers were growing at an uncontrollable rate with tens of thousands of workers pouring into the city annually with hopes for a better life.
But there was no thought or planning for the influx of workers. The treaty exempted foreign companies from paying any local taxes, so the city had no funds for basic residential infrastructure. That meant that workers whose wages were already low had to fend for themselves in every way, from housing to child care to garbage disposal.
Many set up what resembled temporary camps in the arid foothills surrounding the city. Families crammed into single-room wooden shacks and makeshift homes of cardboard. They lived with dirt floors, no indoor plumbing or electricity, and badly rutted roads that wound through oppressive, dusty communities without parks, sidewalks, or sewers. There was no one to pick up the garbage, so it was dumped indiscriminately and scattered on nearby hillsides. Most of the shantytowns were springing up on land accessible only by foot.
To get to work, young girls had to travel alone, often late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, on treacherous unlit terrain to the nearest bus stop miles away. Neighborhoods changed from one block to the next, with sections of paved streets regularly giving way to dirt roads and rough, rocky terrain. Tire repair shops were plentiful along the main roadways and the dusty desert paths.
In many ways, Ciudad Juárez had become like Tijuana. The downtown cantinas stayed open late and attracted college students and thrill seekers in search of cheap liquor and a good time. The district had also become a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes. Prostitution was legal in Mexico for women over the age of eighteen. Many of the clubs hired pretty young girls to dance and serve alcohol. The jobs at the bars often paid more than the three or five dollars a day at the maquiladoras.
The Moraleses believed their living conditions would dramatically improve when in 1986, they packed their belongings and set off for the northern border city, leaving their roots and their small village behind. Ramona and her husband had grown up in La Laguna, where they met and married. She was sixteen when she wed Angel Rivera Sánchez Morales, four years her senior and the son of a family friend. The two had dated less than four months before exchanging vows. They had five children when they picked up and moved to Juárez. In addition to Silvia and her eldest brother, Domingo, there was Juan Francisco, who was twenty, sixteen-year-old Angel Jr., and Javier, who had recently turned thirteen.
Angel immediately found work as a machinist in one of factories, as did three of his sons. His eldest boy, Domingo, who was then twenty-two, was elated when he found a teaching job at one of the local schools.
The family rented a small house with plumbing and electricity in the modest community of Nuevo Hipódromo, a treeless neighborhood or colonia on the outskirts of the city that was densely packed with unfinished cinder-block houses. It was a short bus ride away from the downtown district and the factories that dotted the landscape.
Within a year, the family had earned enough money to purchase a small lot across the street from an abandoned field owned by the Mexican national oil company, Pemex. This property was one of the last pieces of habitable vacant land in the colonia.
With the help of friends, Angel built a small, boxy house with a cement patio for his family in the working-class neighborhood. It was simple, with concrete floors and two bedrooms. There was a kitchen with running water and a bathroom with a toilet and shower. He painted the house a pale pink and erected over the front patio a simple grape arbor, which he tended with care.
Ramona enjoyed the arbor's shade during the stultifying summer months and idled away the hours chatting with friends and family under its protective cover. Next to the front door, the family hung a colorful placard that read "Rivera Morales Family. Anything is possible with Christ."
Unlike many of her peers, Ramona Morales's daughter had shied away from the topless bars and seedy downtown clubs, where other girls her age had found work as dancers, waitresses, and barmaids. There were more than 6,000 cantinas operating in Juárez, in contrast to just 624 schools. Working at the clubs was an easy way to make money. Silvia had also shunned the assembly-line jobs of the maquiladoras, where shifts were ten and twelve hours long and women were often subjected to sexual harassment.
She didn't have to work in a maquiladora. Silvia had options because her father was a machinist, and her brothers all brought income into the house. She was able to take a job in a decent neighborhood at a popular shoe store, Tres Hermanos (Three Brothers), on Avenida 16 de Septiembre, the city's main shopping strip.
Silvia was concentrating on her studies, determined to someday find work as an administrator or a teacher like her brother Domingo. With her wavy black hair, full lips, and almond-shaped eyes, a rich shade of cocoa brown, she bore a striking resemblance to her musical idol, Selena, the Texas-born singer who had risen to stardom both in Mexico and the United States. Silvia too loved to sing, and she possessed a powerful voice for her slight five-foot-two frame. She had taught herself the lyrics in English to the pop star's hit "I Could Fall in Love with You" and liked to belt out the words as she went about her early-morning routine. It was clear she preferred them to the religious hymns of her Sunday choir group.
Ramona enjoyed listening to her daughter's melodic voice but grew upset each time she heard Silvia purring the seductive Spanish verses of Selena's love songs. The lyrics were too sexually charged for a girl of such a tender age, she thought.
On the morning of July 11, 1995, Silvia's eldest brother, Domingo, gave her a ride to school. He was now living in a house he and his father had built on their small property. The two residences shared a common driveway, where Domingo kept his car.
Domingo spotted his sister just before ten that morning, hurrying to the bus stop with a neighborhood boy. He yelled out to her from the car window. He and his wife, on their way downtown, offered Silvia a ride.
It was supposed to be an easy day for Silvia. She had a light schedule at school, just one exam, because it was summer, so she was leaving the house much later than usual. Her normal routine was to leave before 4 A.M. to get to school by six. By 1 P.M. she was to be on her way to the shoe store, where she worked until closing.
Domingo noticed that Silvia was unusually quiet during the twenty-minute car ride. He wondered if maybe she'd gotten into an argument with their mother that morning. Not one to pry, he just let it go.
It was nearing 11 A.M. when he let his sister out in front of the Universidad Iberoamericana, a private high school where Silvia was taking classes in business administration. She was to sit for an exam that morning and then go straight to work at the shoe store downtown. Her shop was located in a touristy part of the city, adjacent to the historic Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission. The white adobe structure was the municipality's oldest surviving church. Completed in 1668, it was the first house of worship erected on the border between Mexico and the United States. In the same square is a second house of worship, the breathtaking Juárez Cathedral, with its neoclassical façade and striated towers. It was constructed in the early part of the twentieth century as an annex to the Guadalupe Mission to accommodate the rising number of worshippers. An ornate iron fence encircles the two buildings, which are among the few tourist attractions of historical note in the otherwise industrial city.
It was already dark when Ramona set out to meet Silvia's bus that Tuesday night; there were few street lamps illuminating the way. Pebbles crunched beneath her feet as she hastened along the unpaved roads, virtually breathless as she neared the stop.
Ramona was no youngster. At fifty-one, she was slightly overweight for her five-foot frame. Her short dark hair was streaked with gray and her wrinkled hands were a testament to years of washing dishes and doing laundry for five children. In recent months she had begun to suffer from back pain that often radiated to both her knees. Still, she was cheerful and quick to smile.
Ramona hastened her pace as a bus rumbled by, its directional signal flashing the driver's intent to pull over beside the solitary tree that marked the local bus stop. It was 8:45 P.M. Silvia would be arriving soon. She had told her mother to expect her on the next bus, the one that arrived just after nine. Her shift at Tres Hermanos would end at eight that evening.
Ramona was forever worrying about her pretty child because, at sixteen, Silvia was far too trusting and possessed a naïve confidence in her ability to protect herself.
"Take care," Ramona had repeatedly admonished the teen. "Girls are disappearing."
"They can't do anything to me," Silvia always replied; it was the typical response of a sixteen-year-old girl who believed she was invincible.
It was just after 9 P.M. when Ramona stepped up to the door of the arriving bus, a blue and white version of the bright yellow school buses ridden by children in the United States. She watched the weary passengers get off, waiting to see her daughter. But as the last traveler descended the steps, there was no sign of Silvia.
She must have stopped to chat with friends while waiting for her connection at the bus transfer site downtown, Ramona thought. Most of the city's buses stopped at the site, marked by an enormous statue of Benito Juárez García, the Mexican revolutionary war hero and former Mexican president for whom the city was named. The eight-foot-tall statue, which stood atop a large pedestal base, was made of white Carrara marble, black Durango marble, and stone quarried from Chihuahua. It stood at the center of a four-city-block park dotted by grassy patches and a few benches. Teens gathered there to play ball and bus passengers waited there for connections; it was there that Silvia made her daily transfer from one bus to another. The Moraleses lived along the Route 30 line, which traveled between the downtown district and the Juárez Airport.
Standing alone on the dark, deserted road, Ramona watched as the nine fifteen bus came and left. So did the nine thirty and ten o'clock buses. With each passing bus, Ramona's heart raced a little faster. Wild thoughts were flashing through her mind as she tried to talk herself into staying calm. She didn't want to think about danger. She didn't want to think of the newspaper articles about the missing girls. She just wanted to see Silvia's face.
By 10:30 P.M., she was in a panic. Frozen with fear, she continued to stand at the bus stop. Silvia would show up, Ramona told herself.
At 1 A.M., the last bus for the night made its stop — the final trip on the line. Silvia was not among the passengers descending the steps. Ramona watched helplessly as the driver shut the empty bus's doors and pulled away. She felt dizzy from the dust and diesel fumes; she couldn't seem to catch her breath as she raced home. Once there, she tried to wake her husband. But Angel was not well. Diagnosed with a tumor in his lung, he was growing increasingly weak and was not easily roused from sleep.
After pacing the bedroom for several minutes debating what to do, Ramona ran out the front door and down the street to a neighbor's home. Her friend Sandra lived a few houses away; she had a brother-in-law who was a captain in the Juárez Police Department.
Oblivious to the time, Ramona banged on Sandra's door. She had barely blurted out the words before Sandra was on the phone to the local hospitals and then the Red Cross. Next she dialed her brother-in-law, the police captain.
"Silvia Morales is missing," Ramona heard her friend speak into the receiver. Could he please mobilize some forces?
The captain knew Silvia from the neighborhood and from the popular shoe store where she worked. Believing he would take immediate action, Ramona returned home and nervously sat by the phone for hours thinking she would hear from the police. But no one called.
The official alerts were rarely given much attention by local officers, who seemed to place little value on the lives of the missing young women, in part because so many of them were not natives of the city but members of a transient population that had come to Juárez in search of work.
Another reason officers were so dismissive of the reports was that their pay was among the lowest of all municipal jobs and attracted some of the city's most undesirable candidates. Only an elementary school education was required to join the Juárez police force, which had no investigative powers and was strictly preventive in nature. It was widely believed that many officers accepted bribes to make ends meet or had taken the job to earn the extra side money assisting drug dealers and other unsavory criminals.
Those with an honest heart were often forced out or quit in frustration.
It was daylight and the sun was coming up over the mountains as Ramona paced the living room, remembering the morning Silvia left for school. The temperature had already climbed into the eighties when her daughter departed just after ten. Ramona recalled that Silvia had barely touched her breakfast: tortillas, beans, and diced tomatoes Ramona had prepared from the small vegetable garden she tended in the side yard. Perhaps Silvia had been nervous about the exam she was to take at school that morning.
Ramona couldn't stay idle another second. Determined to find her daughter, she began an amateurish investigation of her own. That morning she set out for the shoe store to find out if Silvia had reported for work the previous afternoon. In spite of his illness, her husband insisted on accompanying her downtown. Angel was deathly afraid for Silvia and could not stay at home and wait for answers. She was his only daughter. The couple arrived before the store was even open and stood on the sidewalk anxiously waiting for the shopkeeper to arrive.
The store manager told the couple that Silvia had been in but had asked permission to leave at 12:30 P.M. to take a second exam at school. Silvia said she would be back by three. But the teen never returned to the shoe store that day.
Confused, Ramona checked with school administrators and was told by the principal that there was no other exam scheduled for that afternoon. The story was not making sense. Silvia had never lied before. She was a good girl.
Ramona returned home to wait for her daughter, while Angel and her friend Sandra went to the police station to file a report.
It was Election Day in Juárez, and many of the local offices were closed. Police were of no assistance. They were busy dealing with voting logistics. Besides, authorities required a waiting period of seventy-two hours before taking a missing persons report. The officer behind the window at headquarters sneered at Angel and Sandra when they suggested that Silvia had met with foul play, telling them she had probably run off with a boyfriend and would eventually turn up.
Ramona was furious when she heard what police had told her husband. Undeterred, she continued with her own primitive investigation. Walking to two local nightclubs, La Cueva and El Barko, she talked to friends and neighbors to learn if anyone had seen Silvia. Her daughter had been to the dance clubs several times in the past with a woman in the neighborhood who took young girls dancing. The woman had three daughters of her own and encouraged other young girls to join them on evenings out. Silvia had also been to the local nightspots a few times with her brother Domingo. No one recalled seeing Silvia that night.
Ramona next questioned her daughter's friends in the neighborhood.
One young girl who lived on the same block as the Morales family remembered seeing Silvia that Tuesday afternoon at the monument of Benito Juárez, ready to take a bus. The neighbor was walking with a friend from class when she spotted Silvia standing a few feet away from the bus stop by a tree.
Silvia was not herself that day, the girl recalled. "She didn't greet me like she always did. I talked to her and she didn't talk back. She was very pensive, like distracted."
The girl reported that Silvia was standing next to a chero, a cowboy. Clothed all in black, he was speaking English. It was not unusual to see men in cowboy attire in Juárez. Many of the city's male population sported cowboy hats and pointed-toe boots, attire left over from the days when horses were a means of transportation. Now such clothing had become fashionable. What was unusual was to see a man dressed all in black in the middle of summer and speaking English.
"I wouldn't be able to tell you if he was really a friend," the teen told Ramona. "Or if he was with her, because, like I told you, she looked like she had a lot on her mind and she was very distant. She wasn't talking to me at all.
"But the man seemed to be speaking to Silvia," she said.
Ramona learned that another bus had arrived at the stop that afternoon — not the one that Silvia normally took home but one that was marked Valle de Juárez, or Valley of Juárez. That bus took passengers out to Juárez Porvenir Highway, which ran through a much more prosperous residential area. The girl said Silvia got on it, and so did the man standing next to her.
The day after Silvia disappeared, Ramona's phone rang. Racing to answer it, she found no one on the other end of the line.
"Is it you, my daughter?" she spoke into the receiver. "If you left with a boy, we forgive you, just come back." There was no response.
It was July 14 when Ramona went to the procuraduría or state attorney general's office on Eje Vial Juan Gabriel to speak with officers about Silvia's disappearance. Her friend Sandra gave her a ride to the downtown headquarters, which also housed the State Police Department. Three days had passed and there had been no word. Her heart raced as she climbed the cement steps to the mirrored-glass building, which was just off a four-lane roadway and several miles from the downtown shopping district.
Since local police were not trained to conduct investigations of a criminal nature, all missing persons were to be reported to Chihuahua state police.
The overhead fluorescent lights in the lobby exaggerated the wrinkles of Ramona's tired, weatherworn complexion as she waited for someone to take her report. It was chaotic inside with people milling about or queued up in various lines waiting to be helped by the few uniformed officers standing behind walk-up windows and seated at tall wooden desks. The marble floors were a sickly green, and grimy from the continuous foot traffic in and out of the building. Dust from the desert collected on just about everything, including shoes, and made it difficult to keep buildings clean. Ramona was given a number and told to wait on one of the wooden benches.
The methodic ticking of the second hand, on the wall clock above, nearly sent her into hysterics as she listened for her turn. Finally her name was called.
The uniformed officer behind the window barely looked up as Ramona described the circumstances of Silvia's disappearance.
"My daughter never returned, not from the shoe store, not from school," the visibly shaken woman blurted out. "She said she was going to school to take a test, and then she was going to the shoe store to work. She'd be home some time between nine and nine twenty."
"Does she have a boyfriend?" the officer asked.
Ramona didn't like the officer's attitude. But eager to get help, she provided the name of the young man from the neighborhood whom Silvia had been dating.
"Does she go to bars frequently?"
"No. Not my Silvia. She is a good girl. She is a girl who goes from her school to home. She is a very happy girl."
"How does she dress? Does she wear miniskirts?"
Ramona was growing angry at the officer's derisiveness. "My daughter was wearing jeans, a rose-colored blouse, and white tennis shoes when she left the house on Tuesday morning."
"She probably went with some cholo, some guy, a boyfriend," the policeman snickered.
Neighbors and friends had told Ramona about the offensive, obnoxious attitude of the state police. While its officers were better educated than those of the local Juárez force — a high school degree was mandatory — their salaries were still considered low on the pay scale, and corruption was rumored to be rampant among their ranks.
Women's rights activists had begun voicing their outrage that detectives were faulting the victims, implying that they willingly went off with a man or were leading double lives, sneaking off after work to dance at the city's bars and discos. In fact, a majority of the dead girls had disappeared on their way to or from work and were wearing long pants and sneakers, not miniskirts and spiked heels, as police were insinuating.
In this male-oriented culture, girls out on their own were frowned upon and often assumed to be promiscuous. Activists believed it was this mind-set that had prompted officials to overlook the growing number of poor Mexican girls whose violated, butchered bodies had been turning up in the desert.
There was growing speculation among residents of Juárez that officers from both the state and municipal police forces were somehow involved in the murders — or that they were covering up for the guilty party or parties.
Ramona watched as the uniformed policeman slid her a form and instructed her to fill it out. With Sandra's help, she completed the paperwork, believing it was a preliminary step to a meeting with detectives from the Chihuahua State Police Department, which carried out all investigations of a criminal nature. Instead, they told her to commence an investigation and keep them apprised of any new developments.
"Perhaps she has run away with her boyfriend, or maybe she is with some friend," the officer suggested. "Wait to see if she returns."
"That's not the kind of girl my daughter is!" Ramona snapped, her voice rising as she glared at the man behind the window. "My daughter would never do that. She would have told me, 'I'm gonna stay with a friend.' She's not like that. She's a good girl.
"Silvia only went to school, and from there she went to work. From her home to school and from school to work," she said over and over in a tearful mantra.
Frustrated, confused, and worried about her daughter's whereabouts, Ramona left the police station with no help and no answers.
In the days that followed, there were more anonymous calls to the Morales home. One male caller claimed to know where Silvia was being held and provided Ramona with an address. Jumping into a car, she and her husband, along with her son and daughter-in-law, raced to the residence. Domingo went inside but found only an elderly couple who knew nothing of Silvia. The family reported the lead to police, along with a second tip from a man claiming that a factory worker named Alejandro knew the teen's location.
Police assured the family they were following these and several other, more promising leads. But as the days turned into weeks, the Moraleses heard nothing of Silvia.
Then, on August 19, Ramona learned that a body had been found not far from her home on Casas Grandes Highway. It was that of a young woman with long dark hair. She had been raped and strangled, her ravaged remains dumped beside the vacant lot that belonged to Pemex.
Ramona fell to her knees and recited a prayer to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, when she learned that it was not Silvia; for a moment she experienced a renewed faith that her daughter was still alive and would be returning home soon.
In early September, nearly two months after Silvia Morales disappeared, a local rancher was scouting a secluded stretch of desert east of the airport called Lote Bravo for wild horses when he stumbled upon the remains of a young woman hidden beneath some brush. She was partially naked; her blouse and bra were pulled up over her head, exposing what remained of her mutilated breasts. Carefully placed just beside the body were a pair of white panties and white tennis shoes, later identified as belonging to the Morales girl.
Startled, the rancher raced back to his truck and sped off in search of a telephone to notify police.
Uniformed officers encircled the scene with yellow crime scene tape and began a perfunctory investigation. Already more than forty women had been murdered, many with the same modus operandi. Yet police had few leads and no real suspects.
Donning a surgical mask, forensic pathologist Irma Rodríguez of the Chihuahua State attorney general's office arrived on the scene to collect evidence from what little was left of the young woman with the cinnamon skin who sang like Selena. Dr. Rodríguez was dismayed by the growing number of young women turning up dead in Juárez. While forensic science enabled her to determine the cause of their deaths, she had been unable to identify their killers.
"She has several small cuts on her right arm," one uniformed officer standing over the mutilated body remarked. The multiple surface wounds appeared to indicate that the victim had struggled fiercely with one or more assailants.
Authorities subsequently determined that the remains were those of Silvia Morales. She had been raped and then strangled with her own shoelaces. Her right breast had been severed and her left nipple was bitten off. Sand was found embedded underneath her fingernails, raising the possibility that Silvia had been alive after the attack and was left in the desert to die.
It was just before 10 A.M. on Saturday, September 2, when Ramona Morales spotted the blue and white patrol car pulling up to her house. She and her husband were outside on the porch, sipping coffee and enjoying some fruit, when two uniformed policemen got out of the vehicle and strode to the chain-link fence that encircled their property.
"Ma'am, we've found your daughter," one of the men said, pushing open the gate and stepping onto the porch.
Ramona sprang from the white plastic armchair, overjoyed that Silvia had finally been located. "How did you find her?" she asked the officer. "Tell me, tell me."
Even after the men asked to see one of Silvia's shoes, she continued to remain optimistic.
Puzzled, she led the officers inside, leaving them to wait in the small, rectangular living room, hung with ornately framed photographs of Silvia posing in the lacy white quinceañera dress she had worn to mark her fifteenth birthday, as part of the Latin American tradition symbolic of a young woman's coming-of-age.
The officers stood with their arms folded behind their backs as Ramona disappeared into a back bedroom and then emerged moments later, breathless and clutching a single white shoe. The officers exchanged glances.
"Ma'am, we need you to come with us," the same officer directed. His response should have telegraphed to Ramona that something was amiss. But her mind was not going in that direction.
Ramona wondered why the policemen had asked to see one of Silvia's shoes when they didn't even bother to take it with them. They had simply looked at the size and put it down.
Francisco, the couple's second-oldest son, was in the kitchen. Hearing a commotion, he poked his head into the living room in time to see the officers leading his mother from the house.
"I'll come with you," Francisco volunteered, racing after the trio. His father was not anxious to accompany them. Angel looked fearful of what he might learn.
Yet Ramona was certain that Silvia was alive and waiting for her at the police station. The officers had given her no reason to believe otherwise.
"No!" one of the officers retorted. "She will go alone."
For a moment there was complete silence on the patio as the Moraleses exchanged fretful looks.
"Come on, señora," the officer directed, motioning Ramona to the police car. He assured Francisco he would return his mother home in a few hours.
Ramona Morales collapsed to the floor of the morgue after authorities showed her the bleached white skull that had been recovered from beneath some brush in Lote Bravo. She could not reconcile this parched, skeletal remnant as having belonged to her beloved daughter.
Even after police showed her the pretty rose-colored blouse they had found hiked up over her daughter's breasts, the one that Silvia had been wearing on the day she disappeared, Ramona clung to the hope that Silvia was still alive. The ugly reality was simply too painful for the mother to accept. Instead, she convinced herself that somehow there had been a terrible mix-up. Ramona maintained that the remains she had been shown were not those of Silvia, and that her daughter was still alive, studying and singing in some far-off place, happy and well.
Despite their promise, the police didn't drive Ramona back home that afternoon but left her to fend for herself outside the morgue. The despairing mother was forced to beg in the street for bus fare back to Colonia Nuevo Hipódromo, where her husband and sons confronted the horrible reality.
Grief numbed Ramona's senses and robbed her of her will to live. The family buried Silvia in a cemetery nearby. Ramona made daily visits to the tomb of her dead child, and nightly she prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, that the same fate didn't happen to another daughter of Juárez.
But it did.
Eight days after Silvia Morales's forsaken body was discovered in the desert, another one was found in Lote Bravo: that of a twenty-year-old woman whom police later identified as Olga Alicia Pérez. She had been raped and stabbed; her hands had been tied with a belt and her neck was broken. As with Silvia, her right breast had been severed, and her left nipple bitten off.
Ramona's blood ran cold when she read of the grisly finding in the newspaper — and of the discovery of the bodies of six more teens in the days ahead. By the winter of 1995, nineteen young women had been killed, bringing the total, over three years, to forty-five.
Juárez, it seemed, was the perfect setting for a killer or killers. The victims were plentiful, poor, and trusting, and the crimes seemed to go unpunished.
And yet the question remained, who was killing these young women and why?
Copywright 2007 by ROQ, Inc.